Once formidable, Taiwan's military now overshadowed by China's

ZUOYING NAVAL BASE, TAIWAN (NYTIMES) - The Hai Pao, one of Taiwan's four navy submarines, began its service as the Tusk, a U.S. vessel launched in August 1945 at the end of World War II. Its sister submarine, the Hai Shih, is a year older.

Neither can fire torpedoes today, though they can still lay mines.

The submarines, said Feng Shih-kuan, Taiwan's defence minister, "belong in a museum." The Hai Pao - with its paint-encrusted pipes, antiquated engines and a brass dial with a needle to measure speed in knots - will instead remain in service past its 80th birthday, a relic of a military that once was one of Asia's most formidable.

Taiwan's ageing submarine fleet is but one measure of how far the military balance across the Taiwan Strait has tilted in favor of the island's rival, mainland China.

A military modernization overseen by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, whose political power reached new heights after last month's Communist Party congress in Beijing, has proceeded in leaps and bounds, lifted by hefty budget increases that have made China the world's No. 2 military spender after the United States, though it is a distant second.

Taiwan's armed forces, by contrast, have fallen way behind, struggling to recruit enough soldiers and sailors - and to equip those they have.

A major obstacle is that countries that might sell it the most sophisticated weaponry are increasingly reluctant to do so for fear of provoking China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory. The unwillingness to anger China extends even to the United States, on which Taiwan has long depended for its defence.

This shifting balance affects more than just Taiwan. The Taiwan Strait was once Asia's most ominous flash point, with the potential to drag the United States into war with China. Now, it is just one of several potential hot spots between a more assertive China and its neighbors.

Taiwan's experience could be a cautionary tale to Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and others in the region who are also warily watching China's rising military capabilities.

"A small snake does not make nearby frogs, chickens and ducks feel threatened," Feng, the minister, said in an interview, "but when it grows to be a python, even nearby pigs, oxen, horses and goats feel a threat to their survival."

Adding to the unease has been uncertainty over U.S. policy under President Donald Trump. As he makes his first visit to Asia, allies and others will look for signals about the depth of the U.S. military commitment to the region.

When he was president-elect, Trump signalled a more fulsome embrace of Taiwan by accepting a congratulatory phone call from its president, Tsai Ing-wen. Since taking office, he has shown more deference to China in hopes of winning its support in the nuclear standoff with North Korea.

When the Trump administration approved a new package of arms sales to Taiwan this summer, it was worth a relatively modest US$1.4 billion, less than the US$1.8 billion package approved by President Barack Obama two years ago. The sales have included missiles, radar equipment and other military gear, but they stopped short of the major systems that could give Taiwan a real edge.

Any weakening of the U.S. defence commitment "is what Taiwan worries about most," said Lu Cheng-fu, an assistant professor at National Quemoy University on Kinmen, an island held by Taiwan that sits just 4 miles from the Chinese coast.

"We need to resist a Chinese military attack for two weeks and wait for help from the United States or the international community," said Lu, echoing a strategy that has been at the core of Taiwan's defense doctrine for decades.

China has made no secret of its desire to absorb Taiwan, and China's military routinely drills to do so by force, if necessary. It has even built a scale replica of Taiwan's presidential building at its largest military training base in Inner Mongolia.

China's armed forces have long outnumbered and outspent Taiwan's. China now has 800,000 active combat troops in its ground forces, compared with 130,000 in Taiwan; its budget last year was US$144 billion, compared with Taiwan's US$10 billion, according to the Pentagon's most recent annual report on the Chinese military. (Congress approved a $700 billion Pentagon budget in September.)

To defend itself, Taiwan has relied on geography - a mountainous main island 80 miles across a windswept strait - and the support of the United States.

However, China's military modernization has "eroded or negated many of Taiwan's historical advantages" in deterring a potential attack, the Pentagon report warned in May.

The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 commits the United States to defend the island's sovereignty, providing "such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary" for Taiwan to protect itself.

While Taiwan still has vocal support in Washington, China's economic and military rise has made it harder for the United States to ignore Beijing.

In 1995 and 1996, when China menaced Taiwan with missile tests, President Bill Clinton dispatched two aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait. At that time, China backed off, but an intervention now would confront a more potent Chinese military.

China has developed ballistic missiles on mobile launchers that, although untested in battle, would threaten U.S. aircraft carriers. Denying the Americans the ability to operate freely around Taiwan would undermine a core element of Taiwan's strategy.

In Taiwan, once home to thousands of U.S. air and naval forces before the United States recognized the People's Republic of China in 1979, Trump's election last year raised hopes of more robust support.

In the months since, however, there has been a growing realization that diplomacy with China - including Trump's very public efforts to build a personal relationship with Xi - would be the administration's more pressing priority.

Though the arms package announced in the summer was welcomed, it was not nearly enough to help Taiwan keep pace with China's buildup. More ambitious packages - like one announced by President George W. Bush in 2001 to sell Taiwan eight new diesel-powered submarines that ultimately fizzled out - no longer seem affordable or, for the United States, viable if it wants to maintain relations with Beijing.

"Taiwan needs to realize that its defence is, ultimately, in its own hands," said Andrew S. Erickson, a professor with the China Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

During a recent visit to Hawaii, Tsai responded to concerns about the imbalance by pledging to increase military spending 2 per cent a year. She also promised to make more funds available for purchases of larger weapons.

Since being elected last year, Tsai has also promoted a plan to expand the island's indigenous defence industry. Among the most ambitious of the projects envisioned is one to build its own fleet of diesel-powered submarines.

In choosing a defence minister, she turned to Feng, an air force general who spent 39 years in uniform before retiring in 2006 to become chairman of Taiwan's largest defence company. In January, he announced that Taiwan would seek to develop its own stealth fighters to counter China's introduction of stealth jets.

Until such programs are off the ground, Taiwan must rely on aging material.

Its two other submarines were built by the Netherlands in the 1980s. By contrast, China, according to the Pentagon report, has 59 attack submarines, including five that are nuclear-powered.

"Regardless of whether you are talking about the quantity or the quality of our submarines," the Hai Pao's captain, Wang Kuo-min, said onboard, "there is a very big gap between us and the Chinese Communist contingent."

Some experts say that given China's overwhelming numerical advantage in weaponry, Taiwan should focus less on big platforms like submarines and more on lower-cost weapons like anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles that can blunt China's superiority.

"Taiwan needs to invest in things that give us new and asymmetric capabilities and can be operational in three to five years," said Yu Hsiao-pin, who has served on Taiwan's National Security Council.

In the meantime, China keeps ratcheting up the pressure. Its aircraft routinely probe Taiwan's airspace, forcing Taiwan's fighters to respond on at least eight occasions this year. In July, China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, traversed the Taiwan Strait in a show of force.

"We cannot allow the situation to become routine," said Col. Hsieh Chu-yuan, political warfare director of the 455th Tactical Fighter Wing, whose F-16s scramble from the island's main air force base at Chiayi.

The F-16s, bought from the United States in 1992, now face off against increasingly sophisticated Chinese jets, including, soon, the Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter. Taiwan has no choice but to use the weaponry it has to deter China, said Feng, the defence minister.

"Taiwan can't match China jet for jet, boat for boat," he said, but that hardly leaves it defenceless.

"Any attempts to harm Taiwan's people or invade its territory," he said, "will come at a great cost."